In the biggest exercise of democracy China has ever experienced, Hong Kong's voters cast ballots for a semi-representative legislature on Sunday. Pro-democracy parties picked up a few seats, voter turnout was unusually high at nearly 56 percent, and three-fifths of ballots went for candidates who want more democracy, not less.
That's the good news. Yet somehow democrats expected more victories. They've led a popular movement against Beijing's many attempts to rein in this former British colony since it took control in 1997. But they also discovered Beijing is learning to play a bare-knuckled version of the democracy game.
Through a series of favors and intimidations, a hard-line faction in China's Communist Party led an effort to boost pro-Beijing parties and put democrats on the defensive. More mainland tourists were allowed to visit the territory, for instance. In an appeal to "patriotism," China's Olympic medalists were paraded through the city. But also, outspoken radio commentators were forced off the air. And one pro-democracy candidate was accused of soliciting a prostitute and jailed for six months on the mainland.
At the very least, Beijing may feel more secure as a result of this election, and confident enough to open talks with Hong Kong's moderates.
After bluntly deciding last April that the territory can't directly elect its own leader, China now needs to show a clear path for more democracy in Hong Kong, if not for all of China. It's the only way to long-term stability.